- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Elizabeth Hamilton
- Location of story:
- France, Belgium, Germany
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 September 2005
At Lille, we were housed in a semi derelict chateau. I suspect it had been occupied before we arrived by an all-male group — you can tell! The chateau was reckoned to be rat- and mosquito-ridden. Thankfully, I didn’t see any rats but it certainly was beloved of mosquitoes and very soon our faces were covered with bites — not a pretty sight, especially at the dances.
The Army food was well nigh uneatable, much worse than any we’d had in Britain. The way the meals were served up made them even less appetising: food was slopped into our mess tins any old way and you had no chance to wash out the tins between the soup, meat and sweet courses — ugh! It’s a wonder we didn’t suffer from food poisoning!
Our Commanding Officer listened to our complaints and was most apologetic. The upshot was that we were soon moved to a bright new sanatorium, surrounded by a big garden in a nice part of the town.
The VADs there were all English and I soon made new friends of my roommates — Barbara and Stella, both clerks.
The summer months in Lille were very hot (with thunderstorms, often during the night). At every opportunity we sunbathed beneath the trees in the garden. Barbara and I had short leaves (5 days), which coincided and she invited me to join her in a visit to Paris (a city I’d always longed to see). She’d been there before the war as an au pair in a doctor’s house in a Paris suburb and there we stayed and met all his family of young people. Food (just before the liberation of France) was becoming more plentiful so we enjoyed some excellent meals, although they were a bit too much for our slimmed-down stomachs. We saw some of the famous Paris sights and had a sail on the Seine, a walk in the Bois de Boulogne. Spring was in the air and we were uplifted to see the pink and white candle-like blossom on the chestnut trees. We were buoyed up, it seemed, with the hope that the war would soon be over. We also saw the very grand buildings of the Palace of Versailles and Napoleon’s Tomb, both closed to visitors then.
In time, the three of us acquired, if not boy friends, escorts. Barbara had quite a serious friendship with a sergeant she worked with, while Stella and I palled up with two Army Military Police Officers — huge fellows. They were both married but, while wanting some female company, thought it politic to go around in a foursome. This suited us very well as they took us around in their Jeep to various places of interest in the area. Glyn and Hew, both Welshmen, worked with a Frenchman who was an interpreter, and his family invited all four of us to their flat in Roubaix, a small town near Lille. The family were very friendly and were so pleased to meet us. The parents’ English was worse than our rusty French so we all had a good laugh about that. A typical French meal was quite something, with meat and vegetables new to us. We agreed that the French certainly deserve their reputation as first class cooks.
In June came the wonderful news that France had been liberated and the Allies were moving inexorably to their goal — Germany, via Holland and Belgium. I was still in Lille in the summer of 1945 when the Allies reached their objective; the German Army was roundly defeated and sued for peace. The VE Day celebrations were a day of great rejoicing. Our two Welsh friends, who were about to leave Lille, took us out for a superb meal with plenty of ‘bubbly’ to drink. As a leaving present they gave each of us a bottle of that crème de la crème of perfumes, Chanel No 5. Needless to say, we were delighted. I believe I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory when I returned to the hospital in the evening but I at least provided the duty staff with a lot of entertainment. They informed me afterwards, in euphemistic terms, that my behaviour was “quite out of character”. As Rabbie Burns said, “O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!” It’s just as well, I often think, that none of us have that gift.
That period in France had undoubtedly given us new experiences and widened our horizons; our next destination — Germany — would provide us with more. I would be going there with a number of VADs, all strangers, unfortunately. In this constant movement from place to place, I felt we were all like ‘ships that pass in the night’. Such friendships as we did strike up were inevitably transitory for the most part. Having said that, I did keep in touch with a number of VADs I’d met during my Army service — most of whom, alas, have now gone.
Even though the war with Germany had ended, we were all rather apprehensive about the kind of reception we might receive there. Dressed in our battle dress, we travelled by rail through Holland and Belgium to our destination in Germany. Our first stop, for a few hours, was at Arnhem where we had sandwiches, tea and a rest, as we had set off very early that morning. We were all in a very sombre mood as Arnhem was the scene (so we learned through the bush telegraph) of one of the worst disasters of the war. I don’t know any details of the battle — all I know was that the Parachute Regiment were involved, many were killed, and that the battle acquired the epithet ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Recently, I saw a moving film of the Battle with myriads of parachutes, like large white umbrellas, crowding the sky, and the paratroopers turning and twisting in the air like hosts of marionettes. An amazing sight!
There was plenty of evidence in the town of the terrible destruction resulting from the battle.
Worse was to come when we arrived in Germany — our next stop was in the town of Minden. You wouldn’t have known a thriving town had once stood there: it was nothing but colossal heaps of stone, slate and wood. As I’d never seen the awful destruction of a whole town, apart from the ruins of a small part of Glasgow in 1941, I was truly appalled.
We were amazed to see human figures emerging, like troglodytes, from their underground holes, trying to carry on some kind of existence — evidence, if any were needed, of man’s unquenchable spirit, his desire to go on living in spite of the loss of nearly all that makes life worth living. So this is what highly civilized people, like Britain and Germany, do to each other, I thought, but then we’ve always known about man’s inhumanity to man.
A nice contrast we found when we arrived at our destination, a former sanatorium in the spa town of Bad Oeynhausen in north east Germany. It was a pretty town, which, clearly, had not suffered any bombing and was surrounded by wooded hills. The Sanatorium was, I think, the HQ of a Scottish division — most of the doctors and a few of the VADs were Scots; otherwise, the RAMC contingent was English.
As was to be expected, the town’s inhabitants were frozen-faced as you passed them by — never a smile or a ‘guten morgan’. In any case, we were not allowed to fraternise with the Germans, and if any VAD or ATS girl wanted to see a film outside the camp, she had to have at least one male escort. If a number of girls wanted to have a drink at the Bier Keller up the hill, a posse of soldiers had to accompany them.
We were very busy receiving casualties from the battlefield — the cessation of hostilities involved much clearing up. I’d always had good relations with the doctors I’d worked with but, for the first time, I crossed swords with the young doctor (a lieutenant) to whom I was secretary for a time. I thought he was a ‘bit wet behind the ears’ and lacked confidence. Previous doctors had always dictated their notes (I was, after all, a shorthand writer) but this chap gave me his notes written in the most crabbed handwriting — quite illegible. I told him so but he refused to dictate, saying pharmacists had no difficulty with his prescriptions. I refrained from pointing out that a pharmacist’s training and experience could not be compared to mine. So we came to an impasse and I suggested he got himself another secretary. This was not so easy to do, so he came up with a compromise — he would print his notes. I thought this was daft and time-consuming. However, from then on we managed to have a fairly amicable relationship.
After a few weeks, I was promoted, becoming secretary to the Ophthalmologist (a major). I found this a very satisfying job in many ways. Unfortunately, on one occasion, I blotted my copybook, an incident I won’t forget in a hurry. After the Clinical Clerks’ Course at Aldershot, I was qualified to help a doctor performing minor operations. I had been successful in helping doctors in this way in the past so, when I was asked by my boss to assist him in a minor procedure, I felt quite confident. I was to hold the slit lamp while the doctor cleared a Canadian soldier’s blocked tear ducts. The soldier was given a local anaesthetic and so was able to see all that went on. As I watched the doctor probing and poking in the lad’s tear ducts, I felt myself getting more and more shaky and I wondered how much longer I’d be able to hold the lamp steady. It was as if my tear ducts were being probed — a strange feeling, hard to describe. I felt ready to faint and did, in fact, pass out. When I came to, I was mortified to see these two, doctor and patient, laughing their heads off. I beat a shameful retreat, knowing quite decisively what a rotten nurse I’d have made. Of course, the story was all over the Barracks in no time and any number of snide remarks made, or so I was told. That didn’t worry me. My fear was that I wouldn’t be trusted to assist the doctors in future — there would be a black mark against me!
Apart from that episode, life in the camp was very pleasant, with lots to see and do in our off duty hours. There were the usual nightly dances and ENSA concerts. Those interested in orchestral concerts, like me, were taken on several occasions to the town of Herford to hear the Berlin Philharmonic and famous soloists like Elizabeth Schumann and Yehudi Menuhin. One innovation was “Any Questions”, when a twice weekly panel of officers, NCOs, ATSs and VADs would answer questions on all sorts of topics put to them by the audience. This proved very popular and there were calls to put it on more often. The problem was to find enough volunteers for the panels. For those who enjoyed walking (and I was one) there were rambling groups who would explore the woods and surrounding countryside. By necessity, it was quite restricted since we forbidden to stray too far from the area under British surveillance.
Looking back on my four years’ Army service, I think it is remarkable there was, on the whole, so little trouble in these camps where the sexes lived and worked side by side. It could be that we were fortunate in being members of the medical service. I don’t know. However, I wonder if a breakdown of order could have taken place in the camps in Germany because there was seldom enough to do in the evenings and movement outside was, necessarily, severely restricted. The reason for my speculation is an incident that did occur at our Bad Oeynhausen HQ. It concerned a sergeant who had a crush on a VAD nurse. He was a loud-mouthed, overbearing sort and she had no time for him. She would dance with him once or twice of an evening but refused to go out with him. (It was considered not only bad-mannered but also unwise to refuse to dance with a chap unless he was behaving offensively or his dancing left a lot to be desired.)
On this particular evening the sergeant was ‘half seas over’ and much the worse for wear. He asked the nurse, with a nod towards the dance floor,
“No,” she said curtly and turned her back on him. This movement clearly got on his wick and he half staggered towards her.
“I want you, y’know — careful I don’t pounce on you,” he said and made a further movement towards her as she edged away from him.
“You’re out of bounds, sergeant,” she said, trying to laugh the whole thing off.
“So a sergeant’s not good enough for you,” he sneered. She made to walk quietly away but he grasped her arm and pulled her roughly towards him. By this time, she was a bit frightened and tried to shake him off but he put both arms firmly round her waist and pulled her towards him, attempting to kiss her. I was standing nearby and called out,
“Watch your step, sergeant. Just think! This will be a turn up for the book.” He glared at me and told me to push off (and other abusive language), but by this time the noise was attracting unwanted attention from some other ranks, who ridiculed him with shouts of,
“Not quite up to it, sergeant, eh?”
This was enough to make him stop in his tracks and release the nurse. He pulled himself together somehow and shakily took himself off. I wondered what his punishment would be — if a first offence and he was drunk, then perhaps not too severe. In the event he was given ‘jankers’, which was the humiliating punishment of having to peel potatoes outside the kitchen in full view of passers-by. I can’t remember for how long he had to carry out this punishment. All I know is he no longer pestered the nurse. In a way he was lucky not to have been stripped of his 3 stripes or, worse, spend time in the ‘clink’ — locked up in other words, though I think such a punishment would have been an overreaction. I’m pretty certain the sergeant’s mess would not have had much sympathy for the hapless lady, as the VADs were not their flavour of the month. In their eyes we were a snooty lot who gave their favours only to the ‘Pips’ (officers). I found that you had to handle the sergeants with kid gloves; they wielded quite a lot of power and could make life unpleasant for you if you got on their wrong side.
With the Japanese surrender in 1945, VJ Day was celebrated but in a much more subdued way than for VE Day. The war was ending with a whimper, not a bang. The final few weeks of my sojourn in Bad Oeynhausen were a winding down process. A call went out for volunteers who had some knowledge of a particular subject or skill who would be prepared to teach it to anyone interested (in their off-duty time, of course) — chess, bridge, languages etc. I offered to teach the rudiments of shorthand and a number of lads (no girls) turned up to find out how to take down notes swiftly and easily. I think they found the subject quite fascinating but were surprised that to master it required time, dedication and hard work.
My demob date was fixed for 5th January 1946, 4 years to the day since I was called up. There were a number of VADs and ATSs (but no men) who would be leaving that day so the final week was spent in a flurry of farewell parties. The day we left the Barracks was quite a sad day. I’ve never liked bidding farewell to buddies whose company I’ve enjoyed over quite a long period. We exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch, knowing in our hearts the promises would be short-lived.
My homecoming to Glasgow was a joyous occasion with welcoming parties, even though my brothers were still awaiting demob.
I wondered how long it would take to get used to Civvy Street again. I was afraid I’d grown away from my former life and would find it difficult to settle down in the same old groove. However, it wasn’t long before, having struck off the Army fetters, I was busy re-forging new ones (as the cynics would say) in the shape of a marriage!
“From you have I been absent in the spring” Sonnet 94
Now summer had come, the war was over and a new life beckoned — in Wales. And there, in 1948, shining on the hills, was Beveridge’s new Jerusalem!
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